Read this article to learn about the circumstances leading to Ionian Revolt.
With the conquest of the parts of Thrace that still resisted, and the submission of Amyntas, king of Macedonia, general Magabazus whom Darius had left behind to complete the task he had begun himself, brought the first step towards the Persian conquest of Greece to an end.
Several years had passed in unbroken peace when a trivial matter threw all in disorder again and the initial step in the great conflict between the East and the West the Persian empire and the Hellenic world, known as the Ionian Revolt, was taken.
Naxos, the largest of the Cyclades, was powerful at that time, ruling over several islands, possessing a considerable navy and a large army of hoplites. A popular insurrection there threw the aristocrats, the ruling party, into exile. The latter appealed for help to Aristagoras, son-in-law of Histiaeus, who was ruling Miletus since his father-in-law’s detention in the Persian court.
Aristagoras acceded readily seeing in it a chance of his own aggrandisement. But realising that his ambition was higher than his ability, for the power of Miletus was insufficient for the job, he wished to avail himself of the strength of Persia. He went up to Sardis and succeeded in interesting Artaphernes, the Persian satrap by unfolding the project of reducing the Cyclades, even the conquest of Euboea.
Artaphernes readily accepted the proposal and obtained the consent of Darius and placed at Aristagoras’ disposal a fleet of two hundred ships commanded by Mega- bates, a Persian. This was not what Aristagoras would like, for he had expected Persian help under his own command, arid this cut through his plan.
A quarrel broke out between Aristagoras and Megabates and despite every chance of success of the enterprise, it failed because Megabates in order to avenge a slight received during the quarrel sent information to forewarn the Naxians.
The success of the expedition depended on secrecy, and this once destroyed, it was bound to fail. The Naxians forewarned of the approaching danger made effectual preparations to sustain long four months’ siege of the city, after which the expedition returned. It is, however, not clear from Herodotus why a high-born Persian should have turned traitor to his country in order to gain an advantage in a petty quarrel with a Greek who was not certainly looked upon as anything but miserable by the Persian commander.
While the failure of the enterprise was fatal to the prospects of Aristagoras, he was naturally apprehensive of punishment at the hands of the Persian emperor for the loss of Persian prestige and money that the failure had entailed. Fear of punishment by way of expulsion from Miletus loomed large in his mind. He decided to retrieve his fortunes by inciting a revolt of the Asiatic Greeks against the Persian power.
First thing he did after resolving to raise Ionia in revolt to free himself from his difficulties was to resign his power as the tyrant of Miletus. Here again Herodotus is not clear as to why Aristagoras who feared expulsion from his position as tyrant of Miletus should have chosen to lay down his power voluntarily.
The secret perhaps lay in the Ionian discontent with Persian taxes and the rule of tyrants who served as the instruments of the Persian emperor left no other course open before Aristagoras than to lay down his power as an earnest of his sincerity as the leader of a movement of revolt against the Persian power.
Hammond observes that Aristagoras saw in a revolt the means to continue his leadership of the Asiatic Greeks and, if necessary, carve out a domain elsewhere. It will be more plausible to suggest that Aristagoras sought to distribute the wrath of the Persia emperor all over the Hellenic would if possible and thereby make the chance of success against possible Persian attack more feasible.
Aristagoras was confirmed in his resolution by the arrival of a slave sent by Histiaeus from Susa upon whose head was tattooed a message from Histiaues himself urging a revolt in Ionia. Histiaeus is said to have sent the message in the hope that in the event of a revolt in Ionia, the Persian emperor would send him to quell it, and thus he would secure his escape from the court at Susa.
But the origin of the revolt certainly lay deeper:
(i) There was a widespread discontent against the Persian rule, among the freedom-loving Greeks of Ionia.
(ii) Persian taxes were burdensome and naturally hateful to the Greeks.
(iii) ‘The system of government by tyrants, which the Persians maintained in the G reek cities as they had found it at the time of the conquest, had outlived its usefulness and had come to be presented as a burden and a humiliation. The tyrants of the Asiatic Greek states were the instruments of the Persian emperor whose support they expected to draw upon to maintain themselves in power.
(iv) The failure of the Naxian expedition was a blow to Persian prestige as the Greeks saw it and the time was considered favourable for a general revolt, for the contingents of the Ionian states were assembled since the time of the Naxian expedition and much valuable time was gained thereby.
(v) An economic crisis had gripped the Asiatic Greeks since the sixth century B.C., industry and commerce showed signs of decline. Conquest of Egypt by Cambyses dealt a blow to the trade that the Asiatic Greek cities had with Egypt. The destruction of the Italian city Sybaris, and such other political changes dealt a blow to the trade and commerce of the Asiatic Greek cities and this had its reaction on their politics.
(vi) Lastly, there was a widespread hatred of despotic constitutions, which smouldered in the cities, and despotic constitutions were a part of the Persian system. An ambitious despot like Aristagoras only called this feeling into action.
The initial step in promoting rebellion was the setting up of democracies in the Asiatic Greek states by driving out the tyrants. Aristagoras had himself resigned his position as tyrant in Miletus in order to win over the people, and Miletus had a free constitution. There were many tyrants on board the fleet that returned from Naxos; some of them were devoted to the Persian emperor.
They were taken prisoners and handed over to the people of their respective cities. Except Goes, tyrant of Mytilene who was stoned to death by the people, the rest were allowed to escape and their cities turned into democracies without any bloodshed. Thus there was a freedom movement that preceded the greater movement against Persia.
The next step was to obtain allies from Greece against the Persian power. Aristagoras went to Greece for this purpose and went to Sparta at first. There he appeared before the king Cleomenes with a brass tablet on which a map of land, sea and rivers was inscribed. Aristagoras represented that the slavery of the Ionian Greeks was a disgrace not only to the Asiatic Greeks but to all the Greeks and specially to the Spartans, the bravest of them all. He also claimed that the barbarians, i.e. the Persians could be easily conquered as they were neither brave nor well-armed.
He also narrated the peoples dwelling the sea and the Persian capital of Susa where lay the treasures of the king as also the probable prize of victory. Cleomenes deferred his answer till the third day and then asked Aristogoras about the distance from Ionia to Susa. When Aristagoras unsuspectingly replied that the distance was to be told in three months, Cleomenes peremptorily ordered Aristagoras “Begone from Sparta Milesian stranger before the Sun sets”.
Aristagoras’ attempt to win over the king by paying him fifty talents—quite a fortune in the economic computation of the time, was frustrated by the eight- or nine-year old daughter of Cleomenes, who warned him that the stranger would corrupt him. The narrative shorn of its story-element perhaps means that the Spartan king was not convinced that the words of Aristagoras were any guarantee that assistance would be forthcoming from Asia.
Aristagoras, however, fared better in Athens and Eretria. Both these states sent succour. In Athens the Milesian was well-received for the Athenians were not on good terms with the Persians for the former tyrant Hippias was in favour with them. Further, the lonians were colonists from Athens which was also on most intimate terms with Miletus. Athens despatched twenty ships and Eretrians who were old friends of Miletus and Athens, sent five. The campaign was then begun. Aristagoras marched his troops towards Sardis.
The Persians had in the mean time laid siege of Miletus and one of the purposes of Aristagoras in marching straight against Sardis was to compel the Persians to withdraw the siege of Miletus. The Greeks under Aristagoras succeeded in taking Sardis but they did not occupy the citadel.
While the Greeks were in Sardis a fire broke out and the city was burnt to ashes. They left the smouldering fire behind and returned to the coast where near Ephesus the Persian force met and defeated them in an engagement in which the Eretrian leader fell. The Athenians then gave up the whole affair and straightway returned home. With the return of the Athenians their part in the Ionian Revolt ended.
Matters looked bad for Ionia and the country would have been lost if allies were not found to draw off the Persian troops from that quarter. The burning of Sardis was of great significance not so much for the course of the Ionian Revolt as much for what the revolt was to lead to. As to the revolt, the burning of Sardis was taken by Greeks and semi-barbarians to be the time to throw off the Persian yoke.
In the north Byzantium and some towns on Hellespont joined the revolt and in the south the Carian cities also followed suit. Even the important island of Cyprus revolted except the city of Amathus. The revolt against the Persians thus became general among the Asiatic Greeks as also among the semi-barbarians.
When Darius received the news of the rebellion and the burning of Sardis, his wrath was great specially against the Athenians of whom he is said to have no prior knowledge. He ordered a slave to remind him of the Athenians at every meal time so that he would not forget to take vengeance on the Athenians.
He sent for Histiaeus and told him what had happened and added that there was strong suspicion against him of having caused the revolt. Histiaeus replied that on the contrary the cause of the revolt was his absence for he could have prevented it. He promised that if the king would send him there, he would reduce the whole country to submission, and even make many new conquests including Sardinia the El Dorado of that age. The king sent him after entrusting him with the desired mission.
Meanwhile matters had taken a course highly favourable for the Persians. Aristagoras despaired of success gave up the struggle and retired to Thrace where wandering as a freebooter for some time he was soon afterwards slain. Histiaeus came to Sardis only to find that he was deeply suspected by the satrap Artaphernes and feeling himself unsafe fled to Chios.
There he sided with the rebels giving out that it was he who had instigated the revolt and perhaps it was then that he spread the story of the message tattooed on the head of a slave sent by him from Susa to Aristagoras. Afterwards he, like Aristagoras, took to the life of a freebooter plundering Aeolian mainland where he fell into the hands of Artaphernes who crucified him. His head was sent to Darius who, however, disapproved of his execution and had the head buried with due honours.
The Persians subdued the cities on the Hellespont, the Propontis and the Bosphorus. Byzantium and Chalcedon were deserted by their inhabitants. Artaphernes then organised the civil government of the reconquered districts giving, as Herodotus says, some very useful laws. He made a survey of the countries and determined the amount of tribute each should pay in light of the survey he made.
Different communities of these countries were now found to submit their disputes to arbitration. Miletus was put under prolonged siege and the Ionian fleet was defeated by the Persians who now concentrated all their efforts to the fall of Miletus. The city was ultimately captured; the male inhabitants were all done to death, most of the women and children were transported to Susa. The city was then ransacked and the temple of Apollo at Didyusa was burnt down. The fall of Miletus marked the end of the revolt.